At least one start-up space company is finally getting off the ground. SpaceX, the company founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, had its first successful test launch last fall, and late last night it followed up with its first commercial space shot. The company’s Falcon 1 rocket took off from an atoll in the Marshall Islands and launched a Malaysian satellite into orbit. The spacecraft has black-and-white and color cameras to take high-resolution pictures of agricultural lands, forests, urban centers and other targets in Malaysia for commercial and government customers [Reuters].
The achievement is an important validation for SpaceX, which had three launch failures before getting its first test rocket into orbit in September 2008. Last year, SpaceX won a contract to supply the International Space Station after the shuttle retires, and this launch stands as the first physical proof that SpaceX can get the job done. To further develop their space delivery capability, SpaceX plans to follow this launch up later in the year with a launch of their larger rocket, Falcon 9 [Popular Science]. That rocket will be capable of carrying a cargo vehicle, called Dragon, to the low-Earth orbit where the space station resides.
Musk believes that SpaceX will be able to deliver satellites into orbit and cargo to the space station on the cheap, by reducing bureaucracy and reusing portions of the launch vehicle. The company is also is petitioning for a $300 million contract addition to upgrade its Dragon capsule to ferry astronauts to and from the space station after NASA retires its space shuttle fleet next year. “It’s a no-lose proposition for the taxpayer,” Musk said. “If we don’t do what we say we’re going to do, we don’t get paid” [Reuters]. Falcon 9 is expected to make its debut flight in October.
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